David Johansen of the New York Dolls, who played at Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion on Sunday, displays an acerbic view of Cincinnati — and Ohio in general — in one of the songs on his band’s new album, Dancing Backward in High Heels.
In “I’m So Fabulous,” a song about how tourists to New York try to impose their middle-class values (and wardrobes) on natives, a defiant Johansen rants, “I’m so fabulous/You’re so Cincinnati Good Citizenship Day.”
It’s yet another example of how much, over the years, singers and songwriters found symbolism in Ohio. This article looks at some of their results, but not all — if there are others you want to mention, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe it’s just the fact that since kids learn to spell the state as “round on the ends and high in the middle,” Ohio has the kind of goofy geometric (and geographic) connotations that call out to be expressed in song. It becomes an easy target.
Also, I remember an article in either Cincinnati or Ohio magazine from the 1980s, where the writer discusses why Ohio is such a common reference point in pop culture. According to the article, one reason the state has been a reference point is that so many people have left Ohio — it was once the nation’s fifth most populous state. Many of them, especially those who go into entertainment, use Ohio in a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes comic way to connote “the old word” and its old ways.
You can see that in the new sci-fi movie Super 8, set in a quaint, still-industrial southwestern Ohio town in 1979 and produced by Steven Spielberg, who was born in Cincinnati. You can especially see it in the revolutionary TV series Glee, whose radical idea of having high school students break into song amid huge production numbers is tempered by being set in a place as square and middle American as Lima, Ohio.
It’s also possible that those who have left Ohio look back at growing up there as a surreal experience — it’s not uncommon for young adults anywhere to look back on their upbringing that way.
But sometimes Ohio serves as a beacon of hope. That’s the inspiration for one of the most recent, and most gorgeous, songs about the Buckeye State, 2009’s “To Ohio” by The Low Anthem. The song was the highlight of the band’s recent album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. A softly orchestrated Folk ballad, primarily acoustic, its narrator leaves Louisiana after the love of his life has departed “before her time” to head for Ohio and a new start. (There’s also a second version, with more of a beat.)
When the album was new, Low Anthem member Ben Knox Miller (who did not write the song; bandmate Jeff Prystowsky did) talked to me about it. He said Ohio’s role as an Underground Railroad stop figured into the song’s creation.
“Jeff is a lover of American history, and I do think Ohio had a certain free-state significance,” he said. “I do think the emotional idea in that song is the ancient idea that’s part of American songwriting tradition — looking for a place of freedom and looking for a home.”
Cincinnati’s most popular resident recording act, Over the Rhine, devoted a 2003 double-album to Ohio, and Nashville’s experimentalist Rock collective Lambchop, led by Kurt Wagner, put out a 2008 album called OH (Ohio). “Ohio seems like a dream to me now,” Wagner intones, adding, “Green doesn’t matter when you’re blue.”
Ohio also has a lot to be ashamed of — a topic for song. In 1969, the polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire, becoming the subject of Randy Newman’s satiric “Burn On.” Ohio also became a timeless symbol for the wanton destruction of urban development/suburban sprawl, as a result of Chrissie Hynde’s “My City Is Gone,” written about her native Akron after she had moved to England and became a Pop star.
But for sheer outrage, there is the song prompted by the Ohio National Guard’s 1970 killing of four students at Kent State University. There is still no definitive reason for what prompted the shooting, perhaps the greatest Buckeye State political outrage of the modern era. Written quickly in response to it, “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young may be Rock & Roll’s greatest protest song.
It’s Neil Young’s composition and, just as the mysteries persist about why the killing happened, he continues to perform it live with angry power. At the Aronoff Center in May, playing solo with just prickly, feedback-driven electric guitar, he did an especially memorable version.
Curiously, maybe the Baby Boom generation’s fiercest protest singer, the late Phil Ochs, wrote a memorable song about Ohio that is tenderly nostalgic rather than angry. He grew up in Columbus and attended Ohio State. For his facetiously titled Greatest Hits from 1970, after he had seen and sung about the political upheavals of the 1960s, he recorded “Boy in Ohio.” There he remembers a charming past that finished too soon:
Soon I was grown and I had to leave/ And I’ve been all over the country/ But I don’t believe I’ve had more fun/ Than when I was a boy in Ohio.